Normally, when Washington-based policy institutions issue major reports, unless the study reflects strongly held ideological preferences of its constituents or is a stunning condemnation of whichever administration is in power, the half-life is at best a day or two. Last week, Business Executives for National Security (BENS—and I am on the advisory board but did not participate in this study) issued its findings on countering domestic terrorism. This report is a must read for the White House, state houses, mayors’ offices and the public.
Countering domestic terrorism
This report is a critical follow-on to the Commission on September 11th co-chaired by former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean and Representative Lee Hamilton who also served on this effort’s oversight board. Of the ten recommendations that will not be repeated here, the most stunning conclusion of the study is that in more than a dozen years since September 11th, “law enforcement and intelligence agencies still lack an enterprise-wide concept at the federal level.” An enterprise-wide concept means issuing rules of the road and guidance on how to resolve the many contradictions and dilemmas that confront solutions to domestic terrorism.
How this failure persists is a less important question to answer than moving quickly to repair obvious deficiencies in the ability to counter domestic terrorism. More nuanced was the way the study group addressed the fundamental dilemmas and contradictions surrounding domestic terrorism. These dilemmas are as complicated as Churchill’s description of the Soviet Union as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”
The fundamental dilemmas and contradictions relate to treating domestic terrorism as a law enforcement or a national security issue and the tensions among public safety, privacy, security and civil liberties. Additionally, in a federalist system, with fifty separate states and widely differing laws and regulations, ensuring coordination and integration is a Sisyphean labor. On one hand, obviously intelligence and information are crucial to checking domestic terrorism.
But, on the other hand, with seventeen federal intelligence agencies and many-fold more state and local capabilities from cops on the beat to fusion centers and liaison capabilities with foreign governments along with huge challenges that relate to security, clearances and information exchanges, integration and coordination present formidable obstacles in improving efficiencies and effectiveness. Clearly, no simple or single formula to balance these often competing and conflicting forces exists or is likely to be invented soon. But without removing or bypassing these obstacles, domestic terror will always remain “a clear and present danger.”
A further potential threat also must be addressed. One of the diabolical consequences that advantage terrorists is how the threat or use of terror attacks civil liberties and basic rights. Taken a step further, how vulnerable is the resiliency of any nation from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe if terrorists are clever enough to manipulate this potential leverage point?
The attacks on Pearl Harbor and September 11th angered and catalyzed America into action. But terror can also terrorize a nation into inaction and even panic. During World War I, German Zeppelin attacks against London induced panic that did not reoccur thirty years later during the Nazis’ Blitz. In 1919 and 1920, several dozen letter bombs were mailed across America to members of the Supreme Court, cabinet secretaries and even the legendary banker J. P. Morgan. Following the Spanish flu epidemic and Lenin’s seizure of Russia that prompted a “Red Scare,” these letter bombs in which a single security guard was killed created panic across America.
In 2001, anthrax-filled letters were mailed to offices in Washington and New York. While many not living in the affected cities were less worried, within Washington, supplies of Cipro—a drug to treat anthrax—and plastic covering and duct tape to seal off rooms were sold out. The next year, two snipers terrorized Washington, D.C. and the surrounding area randomly killing ten. Now suppose the nation wide attacks of 1919-1920 were repeated today. What might follow?
Over-reaction is always possible. Thomas Jefferson signed the Sedition Act into law. In the Civil War, Lincoln abrogated habeas corpus. The Espionage and Sedition Act passed during World War I was used to arrest tens of thousands of suspects in 1919-1920. Not a single person was charge or convicted although hundreds were deported. During World War II, Japanese-American citizens were interned.
People of a certain age recall the fears over polio epidemics before Jonas Salk discovered an inoculation. Similarly, civil defense and the phrase “duck and cover” is well known to that generation. The Cuban Missile Crisis brought the specter of nuclear war close to home.
This report does not cover all of these issues. But it is a powerful reminder that much more needs to be done to counter domestic terror. And not just in America.